Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Yangshik Tso: 'The character at the beginning was created to shock the audience, but as a matter of fact, it's a very realistic portrait of some of the young generation right now in China'
"Tseden takes an austere approach to framing, from the crisp black and white lensing of cinematographer Lu Songye to his long, fixed camera takes, with Tharlo almost always present."

"I know who I am, isn't that enough?" Tibetan shepherd Tharlo (Shide Nyima) asks his local police chief early in Peme Tseden's film. He's left his hillside flock - aside from a lamb in his satchel which he guzzles periodically on a milk bottle - in order to come to town for an ID card. But from the start, Tharlo has no idea how old he is, beyond being past 40, and already has two names. His given one, which he has heard so infrequently that he says it sounds funny and, his nickname, "Ponytail", acquired from his look. Tseden's film starts with this uneasiness over Tharlo's identity, and it is only a matter of time before he strips it back further to expose alienation and loneliness.

Heading into the city to get a photo for his ID, Tharlo waits at the photographers while a couple before him have their snapshots taken against a variety of painted backdrops - including Tianamen Square and New York - in another nod to the conflict between people and the spaces they inhabit, the photographer insists they change into Western clothes to fit in with the fake US backdrop. Charged with getting his hair washed before his photo can be taken, Tharlo makes a fateful visit to the hairdressers across the street, where he meets Yangtso (Yangshik Tso), a much younger woman whose 'true self' we suspect but which Tharlo is blind to - a human catalyst for his crisis.

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Tseden takes an austere approach to framing, from the crisp black and white lensing of cinematographer Lu Songye to his long, fixed camera takes, with Tharlo almost always present. Despite this, he is rarely at the centre of the frame, more often marginalised to the edges, reinforcing the sense that he doesn't quite belong. Tharlo's visit to the city and his life in the hills are brought into sharp contrast by a 'second act' in which the shepherd returns to his flock and his outsider loneliness, gulping from liquor bottles with the same fervour that his lamb approached its milk. All the while, the clock is ticking on a return visit to the city.

Tharlo's state of confusion is emphasised by the vagaries of his memory. He can recite huge chunks of Chairman Mao by rote - the film begins with him offering a monotone litany - but is constantly forgetting everyday items. Tseden also makes the clear distinction between knowing something (or someone) and understanding. The director - who adapted the film from his own short story - litters his films with symbols, from some of the mirrors that crop up showing distorted reflections (a shop sign the wrong way round, for example) and that indicate what Tharlo sees when he looks at Yangtso might not be all it appears, to others - such as a truck wing mirror - which serve to further emphasise his isolation.

This is a slow-burn, low-key film that requires patience on the part of the viewer. Tseden is in no hurry and in no mood to rush to conclusions but his measured pace helps us to invest in Tharlo, whose confusion is conveyed with considerable skill by Nyima, a long-time comedian and theatre actor making a rare foray into film. While some of the devices used - particularly that to symbolise the full stripping away of Tharlo's sense of self - are familiar and a bit to easily predictable for arthouse regulars, the director employs them adeptly, so that he offers new interest to a well-trodden path.

Reviewed on: 05 Sep 2015
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A young shepherd has his illusions shattered after journeying to a city.
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Director: Pema Tseden

Writer: Shide Nyima, Yangshik Tso

Year: 2015

Runtime: 123 minutes

Country: China


Venice 2015

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